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How to Avoid Buying a “Lemon”

When it comes to used cars, it’s hard to make lemonade out of a lemon. So don’t get stuck with a piece of junk in the first place.


  • Step 1: Look inside Start with the interior. If there’s lots of wear-and-tear on what you can plainly see, there’s likely even more where you can’t.
  • TIP: Be thorough -- if there are seat covers, look beneath them.
  • Step 2: Check for mismatched paint Check the car’s doorjambs and the underside of the hood; if you see mismatched paint, the car’s probably been repainted -- and that’s a sign it’s sustained major body damage.
  • Step 3: Check for oil or water spills Check the ground for any oil or water spills that could signal pricey mechanical problems.
  • Step 4: Look at the tires Stand behind the car and see if its front and rear tires line up correctly, and if the body is angled properly. If not, the frame is bent, likely due to an accident.
  • Step 5: Check for rust Rust is a sign of trouble to come. Once it starts, it’s pretty much unstoppable and will devour the car from the inside out. Check under the mats or carpet in the back seat and trunk; the rear is most susceptible rust.
  • Step 6: Check the odometer Average mileage is 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year, so do the math. If the mileage seems incredibly low, the odometer may have been tampered with.
  • Step 7: Look under the hood You don’t need to be a mechanic to spot red flags -- look for cracks or tears in hoses and belts, and check for any leaks or drips. You shouldn’t see any fluid under the hood at all.
  • TIP: Beware of vehicles that have been damaged in floods -- look for dried mud in crevices under the hood, the hardest area to clean up afterward.
  • Step 8: Hit the road Take the car for a test drive. When you accelerate, check for smoke and odd noises, like clinking or clanging. Stop and start a few times to test the brakes.
  • Step 9: Consult an expert Ask the seller if you can get the car checked by a mechanic. If the seller hesitates, walk away!
  • Step 10: Head online Before you write that check, use the car’s vehicle identification number (or VIN) to get a detailed vehicle history -- including accidents, flood damage, and indications of odometer tampering -- from one of the many online sites that provide this service for a low cost.
  • FACT: More than 200,000 vehicles were submerged after Hurricane Katrina -- and about 10% of those are still being sold today.

You Will Need

  • A keen eye
  • A mechanic

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